Spending day after day in an environment (hospice) marked by instability (people come here to die) leaves a residue in the heart. Intellectualizing about impermanence and chaos theory is one thing, but I viscerally noticing how I cling to the hope that things will remain constant is another.
Here’s what transpired. In quick succession, two coworkers said something I took as unjust criticism … and Pow%$#! Fight, flight, or freeze are said to be instinctive responses to threat; I wanted to quit right then. But I didn’t, leaning instead against a wall, right hand covering my heart space: waiting, not sure for what. This is today’s lesson, the voice said, pay attention. Soon thereafter, someone found me there and walked with me to a quiet room. Barely seated, with her hands touching my left shoulder lightly, I began to weep, then to sob, and to tell my story … including my “freeze” response to the recent death in my own family.
Heard by whom?
After my friend left to visit patients, I stayed for a while, savouring the relief that only tears and unconditional acceptance can bring. Looking up, I noticed a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita on the shelf: 700 verses of Indian wisdom by Lord Sri Krishna from fifty centuries ago. Turning it over, I read Mohandas K. Gandhi’s comment: “When doubts haunt me, when disappointment stares me into the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me.” Thus instructed, I randomly opened the book and found this gem:
“Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.”
Bingo! There it is: my attachment to the amelioration of suffering. Every moment I spend at the bedside, so I believe, I can make a difference. Yet patients continue to suffer and to die … and their friends and relatives, despite my efforts and our temporary intimacy, continue to disappear.
A seeming paradox, yet an important distinction. It is right for me to give everything I have with the intention of easing another person’s suffering: that is the Bodhisattva vow*. It is equally right, nay imperative, that I learn to detach my/self from the outcome of such offerings, that I give without expecting a reward.
* One of the Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition is “to liberate all beings.”